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25 Speech by Mr J. A. Lyons, Prime Minister, to First Plenary Session of Imperial Conference

E 1st meeting (1937) LONDON, 14 May 1937

The Commonwealth of Australia is proud to be associated with this
Imperial Conference, coming, as it does, immediately after the
Coronation of Their Majesties, the King and Queen, for whom, in
unmistakable manner, all the Dominions have shown their loyalty
and affection. Australia joins whole-heartedly with the other
members of this Conference in reaffirming that loyalty.


I wish to associate Australia with what Mr Baldwin and Mr
Mackenzie King have said about the late King George V. It was my
proud privilege to know him personally, and I came to realise his
sterling qualities both as a King and as a man. All of us here
appreciate the magnitude of the self-sacrificing services he
rendered to the Empire during one of the most difficult periods of
its history. In Australia he was loved and respected. His noble
example of duty will, I know, be an inspiration to his son in the
great task to which he has dedicated himself.


I feel that I speak for all sections of the Australian people when
I say that we come to this Imperial Conference as willing partners
in a great enterprise, the success of which will depend upon a
spirit of co-operation, based upon mutual interest.

One of the most conspicuous features of the period since the last
Imperial Conference has been the increasing participation in
international affairs by the Dominions as sovereign nations.

The peoples of the Dominions-and this is very noticeable in
Australia -are taking a widespread interest in all questions of
foreign policy, because of the growing realisation that no nation
can live unto itself. At successive Imperial Conferences since
1902, the development of the Dominions towards nationhood has been
recognised, and the principles of free co-operation on a basis of
equality have been consistently applied.

This has led to a rapid evolution in the relationship between the
Mother Country and the self-governing Dominions, and yet, despite
the forebodings of some who saw in this development a threat to
Imperial unity, never has the Empire been more united.

This unity has its source in the unique position which the Crown
holds in the British Commonwealth, and has been greatly
strengthened by the affection and esteem which the King and the
Members of the Royal Family have won by their devotion to duty,
self-sacrifice, and spirit of high endeavour in the best interests
of all their people.

To-day we stand as a group of peace-loving nations united by our
allegiance to the Throne, and bound together by our faith in
democracy and our common love of liberty and justice. World peace
is the ideal which all the peoples of the British Empire have as
their objective.


We are all members of the League of Nations, and of recent years
the declared policy of the British nations has been based on the
League's concept of permanent peace ensured by the principles of
conciliation, arbitration, and collective action.

These principles constituted a focal point for a common Empire
policy. Unhappily the experience of the last few years has shown
the impracticability, under present conditions, of achieving to
the full the great ideals which are embodied in the Covenant. The
Australian Government, therefore, is of the opinion that an
examination of the bases of the British Commonwealth foreign
policy and of the position of the League should be one of the
major considerations of this Conference, with a view to the
formulation of a consistent and unified Empire policy.

In this examination, we of the Dominions must recognise that the
new status which we have achieved and which we regard with such
pride, carries with it not only great privileges, but also great
responsibilities. These responsibilities involve the obligation of
assuming the full burden of nationhood. No longer can we shelter
behind our partnership in the British Empire. We must face to the
fullest extent of our capacity the obligation to provide for our
own national defence. We must be prepared to play our part in
ensuring the peace of the world. We must be prepared to offer our
counsel and to reinforce that counsel with our assistance should
the circumstances ever arise wherein those great principles for
which British people have ever stood are imperilled. Further, we
must ever remember that never before have our own people and the
people of the world looked more anxiously for British leadership.

All democratic peoples, and all who desire the maintenance of
international law and order, are hoping for positive results from
this Conference. They look for a clear lead along the path of
stable and enduring peace, and the Australian Government feels
that a statement should issue from this Conference which will
demonstrate to the rest of the world that the countries composing
the British Commonwealth of Nations are prepared to act together
in support of the maintenance of international law and order.

As a result of the work of this Conference, we can make a great
contribution to the stabilisation and pacification of the world.

It is my sincere hope that we will rise to the height of our


While I do not desire to anticipate the discussion which will take
place when we have the question of foreign policy before us, there
is one area of the world, the Pacific, where Australia's interests
are so vitally concerned that I desire to make a brief reference
to it.

The Australian Government has noted the tendency of States to
endeavour to enter into agreements in the form of regional pacts
in respect of regions where their interests are directly
concerned. Australia would greatly welcome a regional
understanding and pact of nonaggression by the countries of the
Pacific, conceived in the spirit of the principles of the League.

Towards the achievement of such a pact we are prepared to
collaborate with all other peoples in a spirit of understanding
and sympathy.


I now desire to say a word on defence. Australia views her
security and that of the British Commonwealth as lying within
three successive ramparts-the Covenant of the League, the strength
of the British Commonwealth, and her own Defence Forces.

We recall the words of the United Kingdom Government that it can
no longer close its eyes to the fact that adequate defences are
still required for security, and to enable the British Empire to
play its full part in maintaining the peace of the world. We are
also aware of the extensive measures being taken by the United
Kingdom Government to strengthen its defences, in conjunction with
its declared intention to pursue the national policy of peace by
every practicable means.

Australia looks for the frankest discussion during the Conference
of the international position and its relation to the United
Kingdom defence programme, in order to enable the Australian
Government to review its defence policy in the light of the facts
which emerge, and to put before the people and Parliament for
endorsement the policy that the Ministry may decide upon.

We would submit that the British Commonwealth-a lesser League
within the League-has its common interests developed to such a
degree that it is vital to the welfare of its members to afford
each other mutual support. The principle is really the same as,
that which underlies the regional pacts commended to members of
the League as the first stage of collective security. As our
policy is one of peace and fidelity to the League, in looking to
our own defence we also contribute to the general cause of peace
and stability.

The recent experience of the League, however, has indicated the
importance of machinery being ready to put into operation the
provisions of the Covenant without undue delay. Australia feels
that it is equally important for a common understanding to exist
between the British Nations as to the manner in which measures
should be concerted between them for the maintenance of their
common ideals.

The weakening of the collective system has reacted more
disadvantageously against the small nations of the world than
against the great and powerful States, for the small Powers must
look to a greater strength than their own to repel a strong
aggressor. The Dominions, however, have the great good fortune to
be members of the British Commonwealth, the main source of whose
military, financial and economic strength is the United Kingdom;

but to receive we must be prepared to give.

Australia, therefore, subject to the sovereign control of its own
policy, and without prior commitment, stands for co-operation in
defence between the members of the British Commonwealth, and it
has adopted the guiding principles laid down at Imperial
Conferences as the basis of its policy for co-operation in Empire
naval defence and for its own local defence.


In view of the suggestions I have made for the further development
of co-operation, it is probably desirable that I should give to
the Conference an indication of what Australia has done to
implement the principles which I have indicated have governed our
defence policy.

The naval principles provide for the maintenance of adequate naval
strength, and the provision of naval bases and facilities for
repair and fuel. Since the establishment of the Royal Australian
Navy on a national basis in 1910, Australia has spent 70,000,000
on Naval Defence. Nine ships are at present in commission-three
cruisers, three destroyers, two sloops and a survey ship-and three
ships are in reserve. The squadron has recently been strengthened
by one new cruiser and two sloops and the permanent seagoing
personnel by 1,050 men. The re-arming of the fixed defences of the
main Australian ports is being carried out at an estimated cost of
3,200,000, of which half has already been provided; air co-
operation is being provided for these defences; facilities for
naval repairs are being maintained; and naval oil fuel tanks have
been constructed. Of the additional amount that will have been
spent under the Three Years' Programme, ending on the 30th June
next, 41 per cent. has been allotted to the Navy.

The Conference of 1923 declared that it is the primary
responsibility of each part of the Empire to provide for its own
local defence. In addition to strengthening the fixed defences of
the important ports, the Australian Government has recently
provided a special increase in the Army vote to bring the Field
Army of seven divisions up to its minimum nucleus establishment.

The strength of the permanent forces is also being increased, and
improvements are being effected in the efficiency, armament and
equipment of the Army.

The Air Force completes this year Part 1 of the scheme laid down
by Sir John Salmond, and it will have a first line strength of 8
squadrons and 96 aircraft, which will later be expanded to 17
squadrons and 194 aircraft.

The Australian Government has established munitions factories of
various types at a capital cost of 3,500,000, and arranged for a
strong industrial and financial group to erect a factory for the
manufacture of aircraft. Australia also possesses dockyard
resources for ship repairs and construction which are not being
fully utilised. The proposal for cooperation would cover a survey
of the munitions manufacturing resources of the Dominions in
relation to probable demands of the Empire, and the Government
feels there are considerable potentialities for Empire supply in
the Governmental and other factories of Australia.

Australia is of the opinion that, if the several parts of the
Empire implement the guiding principles already laid down and
adopt the proposal for further co-operation, the security of the
whole Empire should be assured. As the objective of the British
Commonwealth's policy is peace and defence, and not war and
aggression, it should become a rallying point for other peaceful
States. In this respect all members of the British Commonwealth
and other peace-loving States endorse wholeheartedly the
declaration of the Foreign Secretary that British arms will never
be used contrary to the spirit and principles of the Covenant of
the League.


If, in regard to foreign affairs and defence, we have both a great
task and a great opportunity, this is no less the case in the
field of economic policy.

Free as each Empire nation is to choose its own path, we have a
common purpose in our economic as well as in our foreign policies.

We are a group of nations practising economic co-operation, first
for the welfare of each separate nation, but also for our mutual

Since the Ottawa Conference, we have made much progress in intra-
Imperial trade. Our co-operation has enabled us to secure that,
within the British Empire, trade could be carried on under stable
conditions in spite of the world depression.

To-day all Empire countries and a number of foreign nations have
emerged from the depression. The recovery of production and of
internal markets is widespread but has not, as yet, been reflected
to a corresponding extent in world trade.

The first purpose of economic policy is to secure the welfare of
the individual citizens of our respective countries.

In achieving this object, Australia regards the development of
secondary industries as highly important, and this fact is
recognised in the framing of our trade policies.

Australia's future, however, is bound up with her primary
industries, and the advancement of these industries makes vital
the extension of our external trade.

This trade has been found to an important degree within the
British Commonwealth, but almost every Empire country has become
increasingly aware of the need for wider markets than even the
Empire can supply. Hence, if we are able progressively to improve
our standards of living, it is essential that there should be an
increase in world trade.

Economic policy, however, also has profound effects upon the
political relations of the countries of the world. To-day we are
confronted by the picture of a world in which science has made
possible standards of living for all countries far in advance of
anything previously experienced, and yet in which poverty and
unemployment have led to grave political discontents.

There is thus urgent need for wide policies of economic
appeasement if our endeavours to bring about peaceful conditions
in the world are to be successful.

For this purpose the revival of world trade is of first

The Commonwealth Government, therefore, feel it essential that at
this Conference we should undertake a general review of our trade
relations. We believe that such a review will lead us to conclude
that intra-Empire trade has been, and will continue to be, of the
utmost importance to each part of the Empire, but that the
incidence of our trade agreements amongst the various members of
the Empire requires careful re-examination.

It is also essential to examine how we can jointly and severally
contribute to the great objective of a restoration of conditions
in the world which will allow of a freer interchange of goods and
services, so that every country may be able to improve the well-
being of its population.

There is in the world to-day a stronger tendency towards economic
co-operation than has been evident for a number of years, and the
Commonwealth Government greatly welcomed the currency alignment
agreements. We also feel a warm interest in the mission which the
United Kingdom and the French Governments have entrusted to M. Van
Zeeland. [1]

It must be our task to see along what lines our national and
Imperial economic policies can contribute to world prosperity. The
paths toward these objectives can converge. Just as in the realm
of foreign policy the group of nations which constitutes the
British Empire must work for ideals embodied in the Covenant, so
in economic policy we need to translate our strong existing co-
operation among ourselves into policies which, while safeguarding
our individual interests, will contribute to world prosperity and
thus promote better relations both economically and politically
between the nations of the world.

Australia would therefore urge that this Imperial Conference
should give the closest attention to economic problems since it is
in this field that it may be found that positive results can be
achieved in the near future.


The Agenda for the Conference embraces many other subjects. I
feel, however, that the questions with which I have dealt so far
transcend any other matters to which we will have to direct our
attention that it is desirable that I should confine my remarks at
this opening session to outlining the view of the Commonwealth
upon them, and with those who have already spoken I express the
hope that the greatest possible success will result from our

1 On 6 April 1937, Paul van Zeeland, Belgian Prime Minister,
accepted a joint invitation from Britain and France to inquire
into the possibility of obtaining a general reduction of quotas
and other obstacles to international trade in order to give effect
to the tripartite declaration of 26 September 1936 (see Document
17, section on France).

Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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